wish I could say I was surprised when I read Women’s Media Center study that reported that “women of color represent just 7.95 percent of U.S. print newsroom staff, 12.6 percent of local TV news staff and 6.2 percent of local radio staff.” But I was not. As a journalist myself, I’ve learned how few women of color are in news media. I’ve overcome isolation and discrimination in trying to report stories that matter to me. I remember being in the room as an editor was told to choose a more ominous-looking picture of a black suspect for a news story. I remember reaching out to coworkers and being ignored. I learned what it feels like to be the odd woman out at happy hour celebrations, the last to be informed of editorial choices and the coworker excluded from newsroom comradery.
The silver lining of being underrepresented in my career has been solidarity with other women of color. I have felt closeness through head nods and compliments and smiles that spread across faces of varying shades as if to say, “We are here together.” I felt that same sense of solidarity when I asked three women who work in media about their feelings on the results of the WMC study. Below are their answers — enlightening, empowering and evidence of their strength and resilience.
Yvette Noel-Schure is the founder of Schure Media Group and a publicist who made Billboard’s 2016 Women in Music list. Her clients have included Beyoncé, John Legend, Adele, Mariah Carey and Prince, among others. She talked to me about the importance of making your own way.
I give all my credit to being a Caribbean girl, an immigrant. I have a fight in me and I’ve always believed that if I am the minority in the room, I have to shine a little brighter. So naturally, when I look at statistics like these, I think we need to be critical of them and I think we need to kick them in the teeth. It’s important to remember they don’t paint a complete picture.
There have been times when, as I looked around, I realized I was the only black woman in the room. It is a real problem, but there are also lots of women in digital media who branched off and did their own thing precisely because those statistics were pushing them out.
It’s also important to acknowledge the number of women of color who have done really, really well in the music industry. There are so many publicists that we don’t even know about because publicists are notorious for being in the background. That being said, there is a moment that some publicists reach when an artist they represent, who makes what is considered to be a black sound, becomes a pop star, and everybody [suddenly] looks around like, “Oop! When are they going to get rid of the black person on the team?” I’ve got friends who suffered that fate, where they were kicked to the curb and replaced by white publicist. Was it simply because the publicist was white? I can’t say that — but I can say there was probably an assumption that being white afforded the new publicist more engagement with popular outlets, which is ridiculous.
We also have a really, really long way to go in terms of pay. Women still don’t make the money that men do. I think we saw that really clearly with NBC’s firing of Matt Lauer, when everyone found out how different his salary was compared to what the ladies’ salaries were. There was a question of whether Hoda Kotb should make the kind of money that Lauer made. When you have a woman of color at the helm of a morning show who also hosts one of the top-rated 10 o’clock news hours and there’s a conversation about whether she deserves as much as her male counterpart, that doesn’t even make sense.
People can say what they want about women of color wanting too much, but I think we want what we deserve. We want to work in every capacity. We want to be behind the camera. We want to be the executive producers. We want to be the graphic designers. We’re qualified to do all of these things and we want to be judged in interviews based on our expertise and what we bring to the table, not something as silly as what our names sound like. (A pregnant friend of mine told me that she would’ve loved to give her son an African-sounding name, but instead she chose a name with no ethnic connotations after considering how he would be judged.)
Luckily, I’ve seen glimpses of a future that might be a little different. I represent Chloe x Halle. They are beautiful blood sisters who are using their platform to say something. Even with their album title, The Kids Are Alright, they spread a message about inheriting this world and convincing themselves that everything is alright in order to succeed and fix the problems that exist. They’re young, but they have voices and they want to see changes.
I go and speak to young people at colleges all the time, and I’m always so impressed that there are young people of all races, men and women, who are still studying media and really trying to get a sense of its changing face. They’re starting their own companies because they’re reading statistics that show people of color actually spend a whole lot of money.
Christine Bolaños is an award-winning Salvadoran-American writer based in Austin, Texas who has written for NPR’s Latino USA, Remezcla, Latina Style Magazine and others. She was also the International Women’s Media Foundation’s 2016 fellow. She talked to me about making space for new narratives.
I think the greatest difference between pitching a story to a Latinx outlet and a mainstream one is that when I’m writing for a Latinx outlet, I know I can be my greatest authentic self. I don’t have to think, “How can I make an upper-middle-class white man care about the characters or the subject matter of this story?” It’s more about, “Does this character speak to the plight of Latinxs when it comes to the issues?” or “Is this character a solid example of Latinx pride and potential, and how we can move the narrative forward and make it a positive one?”
I will never forget the time when I was the only person of color working for a small-town newspaper and I pitched a series of stories for Black History Month. The editor/publisher responded, “I wouldn’t even know how to begin covering that.” I told this person they didn’t have to worry about that as I would happily write on the subject.
I can’t say that I feel entirely underrepresented because there are always outlets looking for Latinx stories and there are editors at more mainstream outlets who are just as passionate about giving voice to the voiceless as I am. But I do think work needs to be done when it comes to the numbers of Latinx journalists in newsrooms, the types of stories that make the news and the way those stories are reported.
The issue is getting more Latinx bylines and characters published in mainstream publications beyond the usual narratives: immigration, healthcare, crime, poverty, education, inequality. I’ve focused on solutions journalism. For example, we know El Salvador is plagued with gang violence, poverty and despair. I also know that Salvadorans are a resilient people ready to forge better futures for themselves, their families and their communities. Why aren’t more of those stories being told in the mainstream media?
What about detained immigrants such as Laura Monterrosa, an undocumented immigrant from El Salvador who was finally released from a central Texas detention center where she was held for more than nine months after coming forward with sexual abuse allegations? Why are we not hearing more of these types of stories that look at immigrants as people rather than statistics?
What about Latinx businesswomen and entrepreneurs who are actively finding creative ways to employ people and helping boost their economies? From rocket science laboratories to hair salons to food trucks, there are Latinas breaking barriers in just about every field imaginable. I’ve written hundreds of these types of stories, but they are usually for Latinx publications such as Latina Style Magazine or Remezcla.
I’ve also seen dismay and outrage from people of color across the country in response to the media consistently referring to Mark Conditt, the person responsible for the recent attacks in Austin, Texas, as a “bomber” instead of a “domestic terrorist.” The tragedy brought to the forefront racial tensions among minorities and white residents in Austin. There has been much debate nationwide on what constitutes a “terrorist,” so I think the definition does need to be re-analyzed. If anything, this tragedy is forcing us to look at the ways we report these breaking news events, in terms of terminology, but also in terms of face-time.
Priyanka Borpujari is an award-winning journalist based in Mumbai, India. She has been awarded numerous fellowships, including one the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Elizabeth Neuffer fellowship, and she was a Fulbright scholar in 2016. She also maintains a weekly column in The Diplomat, and her work has been published in Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Boston Globe, NPR Latino, Pacific Standard and others. She talked to me about inclusion and recognition.
The first time I was in the U.S. was in 2012 when I was awarded the International Women’s Media
Foundation’s Elizabeth Neuffer fellowship. I was the 8th annual fellow and the first Indian to be selected, so I felt quite like Miss Universe. It was a new experience for me. The biggest eye-opener during the course of my trip was realizing that I am a person of color. I never realized I had a “color” before, but in the places I visited, color mattered.
As part of the fellowship, I had a chance to spend a month at The New York Times, and because I’d been a crime reporter for an important Mumbai tabloid, I ended up on the city beat there. I was so shocked at how white and male it was. I think there were only two black people in my section of the building, which was really big. One was a man who seemed to be an assistant to a senior editor, and another was on the reception desk on that floor. I’m sure there were others in the building, but still, it was so white for me.
I hadn’t realized how different race relations are in the U.S. before I landed there. So perhaps that makes me sound naive as a journalist, not knowing about the country’s screwed-up race relations, but here’s the thing — I grew up watching American television and I cannot name one American TV show that actually spoke about these issues.
I never saw poverty in those American movies. Everybody was slim and trim and looked like a movie star. I come from a very privileged background in India and the challenges I faced as I came to understand race relations in the U.S. were really humbling.
I’m on many forums for women journalists and I love to see how everyone’s talking about it. At first, the issue was getting more women in the newsrooms. But then journalists realized that there are women in newsrooms, but they’re mostly white women. Now there’s a push to diversify newsrooms more, but I think in many American institutions, hiring managers feel that the job is done the moment there is a Latina on staff, or a black or Asian woman. But it’s not. Where are the opportunities for women like me, who know my country well and can also provide a new perspective on a so-called “third-world” country?
I have been a freelance journalist for the larger part of my 12-year career in journalism. Early on in my career, when foreign journalists came to India and they needed my help, it was very exciting to work with them. But unfortunately, this kind of relationship happens — even between Indian journalists –when people from very privileged, comfortable backgrounds parachute into a village and expect local journalists to be at their beck and call. It was considered normal to be asked to share my work with journalists from other other countries and, at that time, I would do it. I was a “fixer.”*
I do not have the data, but I’m sure that most fixers are actually very good local journalists who aren’t paid well even if they’re employed. Often, they’re helping foreign journalists with the hope of getting a byline and recognition after years of hard work. In India, a relationship like this would translate into a byline, but “fixers” don’t get bylines.
As a freelancer, I don’t have a press card, I don’t have insurance, I don’t have a contract. So when I’m going into a conflict zone, I’m on my own. I don’t know who my first point of contact is. In spite of that, if I’ve done good journalism and I’ve been able to help a foreign journalist, that journalist’s story is advanced because of me. So I think it’s a bit troublesome that we call the local journalists who know everything “fixers.” It can be a very humiliating term.
We need to give people of color who do good work what they deserve. I think we need to change the way recognition is thought of and doled out in order to bridge the gap. We need to change the reductionist way black and brown countries are viewed. I think we can achieve these goals when we begin to have open, honest conversations about these issues.
*Ed note: In journalism, a fixer is “someone, often a local journalist, hired by a foreign correspondent or a media company to help arrange a story. Fixers will most often act as a translator and guide, and will gain access to local interviews that the correspondent would not otherwise have access to … Fixers are rarely credited, and often put themselves in danger.”
According to the study done by the Women’s Media Center, women are more than half of the U.S. population and people of color make up almost 40 percent. Lack of representation in newsrooms and elsewhere isn’t just an issue of Americans wanting inclusivity for moral reasons; it’s an issue because it perpetuates a myth about the country we live in. The United States is not a white country with a sprinkling of “minorities.” We do not live in a white world where outsiders are exotic and different. There is no single shared experience, no singular set of values, no neutral from which all other points divert. We are a multitude of colors, experiences and narratives, but when the people who tell us the news don’t represent that, the truth is distorted.